WhatsApp says viral message forwarding is down 70% after it took steps to combat COVID-19 misinformation


Viral messaging

  • WhatsApp placed a limit on how viral messages can go earlier this month after it saw an uptick in forwarded messages alongside the coronavirus pandemic.
  • WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, meaning the company doesn’t know what the messages say, but the ability to mass-forward private messages is long thought to be a contributor to misinformation.
  • WhatsApp says it has now seen a 70% global drop in “frequently forwarded” messages — i.e. messages which have been forwarded to five people or more.
  • Social media companies have had to scramble to combat misinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories about the virus proliferating on their platforms.
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WhatsApp seems to have successfully put a leash on messages going viral on its platform.

A spokeswoman told Business Insider it’s seen a huge reduction in viral forwarded messages.

“Since putting into place this new limit, globally there has been a 70% reduction in the number of highly forwarded messages sent on WhatsApp. This change is helping keep WhatsApp a place for personal and private conversations,” she said. 

The private messaging service announced in early April that it was placing limits on the mass-forwarding of messages in an effort to stop misinformation about the coronavirus winging its way around the world.

Specifically, it placed a new limit on “frequently forwarded” messages — which it defines as messages which have already been forwarded on five times. The change meant such messages could only be forwarded to one chat at a time rather than en masse.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in the amount of forwarding which users have told us can feel overwhelming and can contribute to the spread of misinformation. We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation,” WhatsApp said in a blog post on April 7.

WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, meaning the company can’t actually read the content of people’s messages. That’s better for privacy and trust, but also makes it tough to track the spread of misinformation via private messages. The platform is long thought to have contributed to misinformation — in one eye-opening example, inaccurate forwarded messages on WhatsApp about child abduction resulted in lynchings in India.

Social media has become a hotbed for coronavirus conspiracy theories, some of which have led to real-world harm.

Facebook was forced to shut down two groups on its platform which were encouraging members to sabotage phone masts due to a conspiracy theory that the virus is being spread or accelerated by 5G.

SEE ALSO: ‘The old rules are dead’: How a pandemic could change the way Google, Facebook, and Twitter tackle misinformation forever

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